Middle Tennessee’s defense looks different going into the 2016 season in some spots, with six starters graduated from last year’s group.
Where the Blue Raiders will look very much the same, though, is along its defensive line. Three starters are back from last year along the front, and in total there are six seniors in the group.
One of those seniors, right end Chris Hale, is preparing to build off a 2015 season in which he earned 11 starts and led the defensive line with four sacks, which tied him with linebacker T.T. Barber for the team high.
With three days of practice in the books, Hale said Saturday the defense as a whole is looking to be right on pace to where it needs to be early.
“I think we’re just getting better every day,” he said. “It’s Day 3, so you can’t really judge a lot of things, but I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Before coming to Middle Tennessee, Hale was a standout baseball player at Dunwoody High School in Atlanta. He earned all-region honors as a senior, and in 2011 he was invited to participate in the 25th annual Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., which is a tournament featuring the top 220 high school baseball players in the country and normally draws scouts from all 30 MLB teams.
While it may have looked like baseball was his calling after Hale had to sit out his senior year of football due to a foot injury, once he got to MT he realized football instead was his true passion.
“I’ll be honest, when I first came I wasn’t used to it – my first football workout was here and my first football camp was here, so I wasn’t really used to it,” he said. “But, once I got into it with my teammates and the coaching staff, I missed the sport itself but it wasn’t something I ever thought about going back to.”
Now five years later, the redshirt senior has seen his body fill out with more than 40 pounds of muscle. He also has matured mentally, and on Saturday Hale graduated along with four of his teammates.
“That was a special moment,” he said. “It’s been a long, long journey for me when it comes to academics and school, but I finished and graduated. It was a highlight moment.”
In his years at MT, Hale hasn’t had to grow on his own. This year’s starting defensive line is going into their fourth year beside one-another, and each brings something different to the table in terms of leadership, according to defensive line coach Tommy West.
“This is going to be the most fun I’ve had in a long time coaching, because I have guys that when you coach them, they know what you’re talking about,” West said. “And even though their seniors, they’re out to earn their jobs every day. They know they’re going to play, but they’re out here every day to earn their jobs. It’s an honor to coach.”
As practice switches gears Monday into full pads, West said he is looking for Hale to keep doing what he’s been doing every season at MT: improve.
“He really just needs to keep getting better at what he does,” West said. “He’s improved every year … I think he just needs to continue to improve in his pass rush game. I would like to see him become a dominant pass rusher.”
If Hale continues to show improvements in his game like he has since stepping onto the Middle Tennessee campus, the Blue Raiders’ defensive line will be a force to be reckoned with, and should help lead the defense to new heights in 2016.